A lot of the blame for Aston Villa's struggles this season has been placed on the defense, and rightly so; it's been pretty bad for much of the year. Richard Dunne and James Collins are absolutely not without blame, but I've been pretty outspoken in my belief that a greater share of culpability belongs to Stephen Warnock and Luke Young. Gerard Houllier expects his full backs to become involved in the attack, and that's a fine thing assuming they are capable of getting back in time to meet their defensive responsibilities. In a lot of cases Warnock and Young aren't, and that puts a lot of pressure on the center of the defense.
It might seem odd then that I am suggesting Villa subtract a defender, but bear with me a bit. Villa has a lot of quality in central defense; Dunne, Collins and Cuellar are all solid, Premier League caliber starting center backs and Ciaran Clark has shown a great deal of promise. Despite being on loan to Leicester City, Curtis Davies is still under Aston Villa's control and he's not too far removed from being an emerging star in his own right. The players are there to make for a formidable center three with quality depth behind. While it's true that Villa don't have any prototypical wingbacks, Young and Warnock are both competent in the attacking and with Albrighton and Downing out wide they're not being asked to do much more than provide width in the midfield. In reality Warnock and Young aren't going to be doing anything all that different than what they're doing now, they're just starting from a more advanced position. By adding another dedicated defensive player that isn't expected to add much if anything to the attack, the consequences of their not getting back on defense (and in general their shortcomings as defenders) aren't nearly as dire.
If you aren't familiar with the Formation Visualization Tool that Graham at We Ain't Got No History recently unveiled (and you really should be because it's amazing) it might be helpful to head on over, select the 3-4-3 from the drop down menu and have a look. You'll see that the wing backs start more or less halfway between the central and central defensive midfielders with three center backs and three forwards up top. To make the most of Villa's personnel some (slightly risky) adjustment would have to be made, with Ashley Young moving into a more advanced attacking midfield role (similar to where he has spent much of the season to this point,) the wide forwards drifting out towards the touchlines into their more familiar wing positions, the wing backs sliding a bit deeper and the center defensive midfielder moving into a more traditional midfield role. For the most part these would be minute adjustments, but while it would allow players to be used in the roles to which they are most well suited it most certainly would not be without its drawbacks. The obvious one is the team's width; there's a lot of space in the center of the midfield and while the wingers tending to cut into the middle in the attack would alleviate some of the problem the team would still be somewhat vulnerable to losing possession in the midfield and to quick counter attacks through the center.
Still, the advantages make it worth at least having a look. This formation would end up looking like something of a midway point between a 3-4-3 and a 5-2-3, and either could be adopted in full should the situation call for it. That sort of on-the-fly flexibility is a nice thing to have. It wouldn't work against every team, but in situations where playing for the counter would best suit Villa's chances or against teams that are strong in the center and weak on the edges it has some pretty interesting potential. Villa have some major strengths and some equally glaring weaknesses. Trying something unorthodox (at least in terms of the present-day English Premier League) could have some pretty enormous benefits. It could also fail miserably, but Villa have done that on plenty of occasions playing a fairly standard 4-4-1-1 this season.
As the headline suggests, I don't think there's any way we see this happening. Houllier has not so far as I am aware shown any inclination towards playing a three man defense and he's almost certainly not going to start doing so given the situation. I doubt I would do something so drastically different were I somehow in his position. What I do know is that in many cases we don't consider all of the possible solutions to problems the team is having or to ways to more effectively use the talent available; certain transfer rumors are dismissed out of hand because the player doesn't normally play a position employed by the manager, or players are seen as bound to the bench because their chosen spot is filled. By this line of thinking Marc Albrighton would still be playing for the reserves and Stephen Ireland would be starting nearly every game. I don't mean to imply that suggesting Villa play a 3-4-3 is some sort of revolutionary epiphany because clearly it is not; it's just one suggestion of how to maximize the talent in the squad that struck me while watching Stephen Warnock's man blow past him and Richard Dunne not being able to get back in time to cover. Just a thought, and it's one that I might think is dumb in a week. More than anything I think these conversations can be fun; who cares if they're hypothetical? They're a fun way to pass the time and they can help us to better understand the game. Which is certainly more than we can say for Stephen Ireland.